Scouting Mission: 2017-Jan-06

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The Old Courthouse, located in downtown Saint Louis, is an incredibly magnificent and historic building, and the best time for locals to visit is on January 6th, which is Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. On this day, the Old Courthouse comes alive with music and dancing from 1768, as period actors in military uniform, and ladies in long gowns, throw a party for the public.  The event is called the “Twelfth Afternoon Ball” and it comes complete with little cakes and cookies for visitors to enjoy.  The public is also invited to join in the line dancing, which is easy to learn, and a blast. The whole thing is free.

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The party culminates with a sharing of the “King’s Cake” — little cakes that have been baked with three beans inside.  Gentlemen eat the cakes, and whoever gets a bean, gets to be King, which means the honor of throwing the party next year.  It’s a jolly festive atmosphere inside the Courthouse, but the real reason for a family adventure is to climb the stairs of the magnificent rotunda, and get some exercise in winter. Parking is easy in winter, or, ride the Metro to the 8th & Pine station and walk four brisk blocks to the Courthouse.

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Explore until you find the cast iron staircase, and climb each set of stairs — up three ascending balconies, each time hunting for the next set of hidden stairs — until you’ve reached as high as you can go. Most people who visit the Courthouse never climb the balconies, and never get to experience the ingenious design that amplifies sound without electricity.   In this case, music and laughter float up, while you climb ever higher, and peer over at smaller and smaller dancers below.  The Old Courthouse was crafted by hand, at enormous expense, and it’s impossibly beautiful and grand by today’s standards.

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The skylight at the top of the cupola is called the “eye”, and allegorical figures are painted on the walls depicting law, liberty, justice and commerce.  If you know your architectural order, the columns ascend from Doric to Ionic to Corinthian. Some of the columns are weight bearing, made of cast iron, and some of the columns are decorative, made of wood. Knock on a few to see which is which!

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Look down on the dancers below, and peek inside the old courtroom doors.

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Because it was the setting for the Dred & Harriet Scott case, which helped spark the Civil War, the Old Courthouse stands as a touchstone for the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights. Be sure to visit the Dred Scott exhibit, and look for the underground railroad map.  The Old Courthouse is a local treasure, as well as a National Park, so buy or bring your National Park Passport, and get it stamped. Look for the sculpture of Harriet and Dred Scott just outside the East Doors, which face the river.

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Be sure to visit the gift store, which specializes in books on Lewis and Clark, as well as  children’s books on African American history.  From the East Steps, you can see the Arch and stand on the spot where slaves were sold. The Eads Bridge, which inspired the Arch, was also sold on this spot, as well as the St. Louis Dispatch — to Hungarian immigrant Joseph Pulitzer.  This is a good spot for a family photo.

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Because of the Twelfth Afternoon Ball, not to mention easy parking, Epiphany is the perfect time for local citizens to visit the Old Courthouse, to get some exercise and some cultural appreciation at the same time. The event is free and suitable for all; toddlers will get a lot of exercise, and surprisingly, even teenagers will like it. On your way out, hunt for the turtle motif on the fence, an homage to a quirky custodian who once kept a turtle in the fountain.

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Every child from Saint Louis should visit the Old Courthouse at least once, to touch a monument to the dream of equality, and to reinforce the shared value of governance by the rule of law. Go anytime your schedule allows, but if you go on Epiphany, the adventure is twelve times the fun.

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